An advocate for government whistleblowers blamed the Obama administration Tuesday for failing to provide protections for intelligence employees who want to report abuses and wrongdoing, as authorities intensified their global manhunt for National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.
For the second consecutive day, White House spokesman Jay Carney sought to deflect blame from the administration for Mr. Snowden’s unprecedented and unauthorized disclosure of secret surveillance programs by the NSA. He said Mr. Obama had strengthened protections for government workers who come forward through proper channels to air concerns.
But Stephen Kohn, executive director of the National Whistleblower Center in Washington, said the administration “is to blame in large part for the situation we now see.”
He said Mr. Obama retreated from a 2008 campaign promise to extend whistleblower protections to national security workers.
During negotiations on whistleblower legislation in 2009, Mr. Kohn said, he met at the White House with Norman Eisen, a law school classmate of Mr. Obama who was then the administration’s special counsel for ethics and government reform.
“I confronted Norm … that there had been a promise to protect national security whistleblowers and let them have access to court,” Mr. Kohn said. “He told me to my face that the administration was not going to honor that promise, and I was free to tell the world that they broke it. That’s what he said. The White House completely reversed their position. So the Enhancement Act that he is now praising does not cover NSA, CIA among others — it completely stripped out all protections for national security whistleblowers.”
Mr. Snowden, 29, who was last seen in Hong Kong, was officially fired Tuesday from his $122,000-per-year job by defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton for “violations of the firm’s code of ethics and firm policy.”
House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, publicly branded Mr. Snowden a “traitor,” and a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted that Moscow would consider granting him asylum.
Mr. Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, came forward for the first time to say that she has been “lost at sea without a compass” since her boyfriend’s disappearance. She described herself as a “pole-dancing superhero.”
At the White House, Mr. Carney enumerated the steps that Mr. Obama has taken to encourage government workers to report abusive policies and wrongdoing. As an example, he pointed to the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which Mr. Obama signed into law Nov. 27. It provides for expanded judicial review and enhanced penalties when whistleblowers experience retaliation.
“The Obama administration has demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting whistleblowers,” Mr. Carney said. “There are established procedures that whistleblowers can employ that also protect, or rather, ensure protection of national security interests.”
Because the law wouldn’t cover national-security agencies, Mr. Carney said, the president in October 2012 signed a directive to extend “whistleblower protections to the intelligence and national security communities for the first time.”
“The directive prohibits retaliation against whistleblowers who report information through the appropriate channels and established procedures,” Mr. Carney said. “The president’s commitment on this issue far exceeds that of past administrations, which have resisted expanding protections for whistleblowers, and in doing so, have steered away from transparency.”
But Mr. Kohn said the executive order is “window dressing, or worse,” because it doesn’t provide for judicial review and the agency head retains authority over the whistleblower at all times.
“The Obama administration, in my view, is to blame in large part for the situation we now see,” Mr. Kohn said. “There is no avenue for a national-security employee to raise concerns about illegality and misconduct. Any avenue that exists is so heavily weighted against the whistleblower, we recommend against it.”
He said “there is no recourse” for national security workers like Mr. Snowden who believe they are witnessing abusive government practices.
The Justice Department has opened a criminal investigation of the national security leaks, and several lawmakers have called for Mr. Snowden’s extradition to the U.S. The White House on Tuesday refused to characterize Mr. Snowden either as a leaker or a whistleblower, with Mr. Carney saying they didn’t want to comment during an ongoing investigation.
“This type of blanket data collection by the government strikes at the bedrock American values of freedom and privacy,” the group said in a letter to Congress. “This dragnet surveillance violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which protect citizens’ right to speak and associate anonymously and guard against unreasonable searches and seizures that protect their right to privacy.”
Among the signers of the letter are the American Civil Liberties Union, Reddit, Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Demand Progress, a liberal advocacy group focused on civil liberties and civil rights.
The coalition called for a number of specific reforms in their letter to Congress, including reforming Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, the “business records” section that, through secret court orders, was used to collect phone records of millions of Verizon customers.